After El Paso: Offering awareness through pastoral letter, teach-in

ORLANDO | Although the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart happened three months ago, the shocking aftereffects of the tragedy continue to ripple throughout the border area community. The incident made national news, as the location of the murder scene was chosen for its largely Latino population.

For Bishop Mark Seitz, shepherd of the El Paso Diocese, he worried that as the days went by people wanted to put the incident behind them. So, he boldly decided to put it front and center again in the form of a powerful document on church teaching titled, “The Night Will Be No More.”

In it, Bishop Seitz forced a raw look at racism, including inside the church, and at the way words, including by government officials, coupled with a person’s embrace of white supremacy, contributed to the deadly event and profoundly wounded, in particular, El Paso’s Latino community.

“Although I myself am not of Latino origin, they’re my people,” Bishop Seitz told Catholic News Service Nov. 10. “They’re my family. They’re my flock, if you will. They’re the people I’m called to serve and to guide and, in some way, to protect, and they’ve been assaulted. I saw their faces. I heard their pain.”

Those in his diocese with whom he spent time in the aftermath — even though they may have not been shot at or were family of those who were hurt — also are victims in some form, he said.

“I heard a woman in her 40s, who had grown up in El Paso, and she said to me, ‘You know, all my life growing up here, I felt like a full citizen of this country, but with these events, for the first time in my life, I feel like I have been made a target simply because of the color of my skin.’ And that was so painful to hear.”

He said he wanted the letter to be a “conversation starter” and also one that would explore the underlying causes of the shooting, “something that would lead to further dialogue, especially because the people in my diocese were still suffering from that event.”

The letter has opened the doors of conversation, he said, to ask “what has been your experience in the past? Have you experienced something that showed prejudice toward you, discrimination toward you because you are of Latino origin? And I’ve been surprised at the answers.”

TEACH-IN
Before the recent fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, several fellow bishops congratulated Bishop Seitz for his work in El Paso and on the letter. For him that meant perhaps that conversation will start with his fellow shepherds.

“It can’t simply be put under the rug as though this was just another passing experience where an individual was deranged, came and shot people,” he told CNS.

“This event, it was, in some ways,” he continued, “the tip of an iceberg that consists of a growing ideology that either is latently racist in their attitudes, especially toward people of Latino origin … a rhetoric that makes it seem acceptable to exclude a whole group of people, immigrants and, more broadly, people of Hispanic origin, simply because of their origin and this we cannot simply put under the carpet. We have to deal with that because it’s not going away.”

That was a sentiment felt and examined when the Hope Border Institute and the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition orchestrated “The Teach-In 2019: Jornada por la Justicia,” a weekend of courses and prayer in El Paso, Texas. Professors, journalists, and religious officials came together to educate the attendees with workshops specializing in voter suppression, racialized violence, Latino identity, and learned how to recognize and resolve similar issues in the future.

Among the various topics discussed during the teach-in, the issue of race was paramount and prominent. After the tragedy at Walmart unfolded, it was discovered the suspect — a self-proclaimed white nationalist — traveled 10 hours to specifically target Hispanics.

The Florida Catholic spoke with two lay people and a priest about their experiences at the teach-in. Mateo Gomez, a Miami resident of Colombian heritage, who studies political science and broadcasting at Barry University. He attended the El Paso conference to support the Latino community. He sympathizes with the victims of the gunman’s racial attacks because he has endured bigotry himself. Gomez, who one day had traveled to the Naples area and asked for directions, had been called a racial slur without any provocation.

He echoed the words of Bishop Seitz that the shooting in El Paso and the ramifications behind the event cannot be ignored. For Gomez, an acknowledgement of the racial climate throughout the country has been a long overdue discussion, and now it is finally garnering dialogue.
“(W)e have been ignoring the issue that has constantly been there, which is white supremacy,” Gomez said. “It is racism.”

Another Catholic, Cesar Baldelomar, who studies theology at Boston College, lectured at the conference about numerous social justice issues concerning America at the moment, including the importance of activism on college campuses.

Baldelomar doesn’t believe only racial dominance is at the core of the El Paso shooting. “It goes deeper than white supremacy,” he said. “It is only an expression of this (racial tragedy). We have reached the point of it as a systemic problem. It is a culture of death, not a culture of compassion. Humans, in general, are seen as dispensable cogs in a machine.”

Retired priest Father Fred Ruse, who hails from the Diocese of Orlando where he served for 43 years, dedicated his time at the teach-in by representing the Catholic Church and providing moral support to the Latino community. He said he believes this issue of race goes beyond the El Paso shooter and into the political spectrum. Eliminating white supremacy, he said, “is a multi-faceted task of having conversations with those who have the power.”

ON THE BORDER WITH A CATHOLIC LENS
Crossing the border could also be classified as a complicated and multi-faceted decision. Those who cross the border to seek asylum do so as an option for survival.

But Gomez suggested newscast channels and social media tend not to showcase those perspectives as legitimate reasons for the border crisis.
“(The media) doesn’t show what is 200 steps from the wall.” Channels play only what their core audiences will likely want, Gomez added. “We should see it first-hand. The media networks are censoring things that they don’t want to show. They won’t show the complete view.”

That is why Gomez wanted to see the Mexico-United States border for himself and witness the shockwave of the El Paso tragedy by attending the teach-ins. “I have to go see this,” he said of his journey across a bridge that leads into Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city that parallels El Paso. “I need to see what is on the other side, of what people are going through. I want to hear for myself.”

Gomez added although it was an “incredible” experience, “I had lost my appetite.” He was repulsed by what he had witnessed, which included portions of the notorious wall, National Guards with “huge guns,” and “a bunch of immigration cars monitoring the area.”

“People were sleeping in tents,” Gomez said. One scene saddened his experience to the core. “There was a little kid protecting his parents’ belongings, which was just two bags filled with stuff. The parents were out looking for food.”

To settle these ongoing problems of race and citizenship at the border, turning to Christ could be the universal answer that will bring awareness, understanding, and change. “The key is to inspire generations,” Baldelomar said of how Catholics should treat the El Paso tragedy. “The Church in the U.S. and around the world is polarized. We need to reconcile. This is a problem of culture and death and destruction. Follow Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament … and the Gospel of Luke about the marginalized and poor.”

“There are people living in tents along the border. As young as three months and as old as 85,” he added. “They receive very little aid. As Catholics we need to see what Catholic social teaching can say about it.”

Father Ruse shared Gomez and Baldelomar’s opinions. “Talking about it in the parish (is key),” he said. He feels the Church should take more responsibility. “The whole thing of colonialism, the Church was a companion with the powers that be as a way of controlling the places they came to. We need to talk about it through the bulletin, the parish schools, the pulpit. We need to be more welcoming, ask: why are things this way?”

THE FUTURE
The road to change is long but not without hope. That was the sincere message of the teach-in. And while the shooter acted from a racist mindset, the good people of the October presentation do not want his life extinguished as a result.

Baldelomar doesn’t recommend the death penalty as an option for the El Paso Walmart shooter. “I don’t think the death penalty will bring release or closure,” he said. As a solution, America should be “more robust about gun control and policy.”

Father Ruse shares that Catholic sentiment, as well. “It is just perpetuating violence,” he said of applying the death penalty. “Try to bring them into the space of redemption.”

The El Paso teach-in helped the attendees to come together and bond over sympathy for the deceased and practice faith with hope for a more positive future.

“The teach-in was an ideal place to be exposed to the finest minds … relative to the issue of immigration, practice and policy in this country,” Father Ruse said.

The question Father Ruse raises about immigration, racial superiority, and mindless killing is simple, direct, and highlights the future moral decisions that all Catholics and non-Catholics need to answer for themselves: “Is that really the way God sees us?”


Catholic News Service contributed to this report. The full text of Bishop Mark Seitz’s letter, titled “Night Will Be No More,” can be found on line in English and Spanish at https://bit.ly/2rGwQxu.

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